Sunday, October 31, 2010

Damned if they do, damned if they don't

Two contrasting stories in the papers this weekend:

Firstly, Christopher Booker in The Telegraph continued his campaign against the child protection system, using his usual emotive language ('a system which has gone horrifyingly off the rails', 'tearing babies from their mothers' arms', 'a corrupted system', 'this cruel, dishonest and venal system', 'the Frankenstein's monster that Parliament created', etc., etc., etc.). Now, I'm not a social worker and it's a long time since I did child care work anyway, so I'm not going to comment in detail, although I do know enough to say that I'm sure those family law practitioners who do public law work would take great exception to Booker's assertion that parents: "are, all too often, pressured into being represented by lawyers who, again, work regularly for the council, who fail to put their case and who turn out to be just part of the same system".

Why, then, would a system, and everyone involved in it, wish to seize "thousands of children a year from loving homes, for no good reason"? Booker has this covered: the real reason is money. He tells us that foster homes receive £400 a week or £20,000 a year for each child, and that "the vast fostering industry, run by dozens of agencies, often owned by ex-social workers" also receive £20,000 a year for each child they place. As for the lawyers, they are not specifically mentioned, but presumably they are after a cut of the "hundreds of millions of pounds of public money" that fund the industry, i.e. legal aid.

Booker doesn't say how many thousands of children are wrongfully removed each year, but the implication seems to be that it is a few thousand (if it were more, surely he would have said?). For the sake of argument, let us say that it is 3,000. Just this morning Camila Batmanghelidjh, the chief executive of Kids Company, told BBC News that there are 1.5 million children in this country who are being abused or neglected. If this is right, then 3,000 represents just 0.2% of that figure. OK, I know this is not very scientific, but it does perhaps put the size of the problem in perspective, not that I want to make light of it - every error is a tragedy.

The other story is in The Observer today, which picks up on the story in the Gazette this week that child protection experts are concerned that abused children will be at greater risk following the government’s decision not to scrap the controversially high court fees paid by councils in care and supervision cases. An NSPCC spokesman is quoted as saying: "There is a serious risk that fewer cases will now go to court so denying vulnerable children and families justice", which seems fairly obvious to me, particularly given the financial situation in which councils currently find themselves.

So, how do we square these two stories? On the one hand, concerns that a corrupt system is taking children away from their parents for no good reason, and on the other hand concerns that the same system may, through financial constraints, not take children away when there are good reasons. I don't know, but the answer that suggests itself to me is that the system is actually not too bad - it gets a relatively small number of cases wrong (each way), but it get most things right. I'm not saying that we should be complacent - we should always strive for a better system - but calls from the media (and, to their shame, some politicians) to eradicate all errors are, of course, a nonsense - there is no such thing as a perfect system, and never will be.

One thing is certain: as always, those involved in the child protection system will continue to be damned if they do, and damned if they don't.


  1. Curious that Mr. Booker does not evaluate budget cuts when adopting such an extreme position (or does he? I haven't read his articles in toto).

    John, here in NY we'e seen some horrific cases where child protective services really dropped the ball, most recently in Brooklyn:

    As you can see from the articles, some of the blame seems to be attributable to budget cuts (although there were plenty of other horror stories when NYC was flush with cash, before The Great Recession).

    The overworked 18-B (court-appointed) attorneys who usually handle these cases have always received ludicrously low taxpayer-funded fees. A plumber makes more in one hour than these lawyers made in three or four. System stretched to the max....

    And although it's very unfortunate that headline-grabbing cases also tend to divert attention from good results, I'm sure you agree that those awful cases force our political leadership to confront and re-address these difficult issues.

  2. Thanks for that. Interesting how similar the situation is over there. It seems some problems are universal...


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